noel gallagher on liam, scissors, and his most joyful record yet
Manchester’s most famous son talks to i-D about rock and roll, and the small matter of the man he calls “the singer."
Photography Lawrence Watson
There was a moment about halfway through Noel Gallagher’s hour-long set at York Hall, in the North of England, last week that just about summed up being a northerner. As you may well have seen, Noel and his rotating cast of High Flying Birds are releasing a new record this month. It’s called Who Built the Moon?, one of those pleasingly vague album titles the 50-year-old songwriter has been knocking out since 1994, when Definitely Maybe announced the arrival of that band with an abundance of certainty and a healthy dose of possibility. So far so Noel. What you wouldn’t have put your money on, however, was Noel Gallagher — he of real, no nonsense rock and roll — arriving on stage that night with a French woman playing a pair of scissors.
Ah, yes, the scissors. If Bob Dylan had going electric and John Lennon had banging a nail into a ceiling, then Noel will always have the scissors. The moment when his hometown turned on him, when the hitherto down-to-earth musician disappeared up his own ass with a pair of hand-operated shearing tools (ouch). In fact, never has a pair of scissors created such division. “This is cutting edge music,” he joked to the crowd. It felt like a very northern English way to frame it — a self-awareness that, on the one hand, it’s really fucking cool to have someone playing the scissors in your band, and on the other, it’s a little bit daft. You probably wouldn’t make that joke if you were a trendy five-piece from London, would you?
“When 'Holy Mountain' came out, one of the girls in the office said, ‘Oh, there’s been quite a bit of negative reaction to the video.’ I was like, really? This might be a laugh then. If people are getting upset about it, this might be a laugh from here on in.”
“If you were from Peckham [in London], you would be obliged to intellectualize it,” says Gallagher today, holed up in the mezzanine of a swanky Covent Garden restaurant with the purpose of promoting solo album number three. “You would be at the mercy of intellectualizing it. Plus she’s French and she’s eccentric to say the least. I said to her, can you play the tambourine? She said, [adopts French accent] ‘I cannot play the tambourine.’ I said, ‘Oh right. Shaker?’ ‘Non. I can play the scissors.’ She brought them in and I was looking at my bass player going, if that’s not the greatest thing you’ve ever seen then tell me what is. A French bird in a cape playing the scissors? It doesn't get any better than that does it?”
Such is the enthusiasm Gallagher has for his new record that you find yourself agreeing with him, despite the lingering sense that, yeah, there probably are on balance better things than a French person playing the scissors. That’s not the point though — what matters is the mood, the vibe.
Who Built the Moon? is Noel Gallagher’s most playful album to date; a rock and roll pop record about hope and joy preceded by a bonkers, glam-stomper that is said to have been met with frosty silence when first played to his record label. Gallagher’s done experimental before, sure — see 1997’s Chemical Brothers collab "Setting Sun"; 2009’s "Falling Down (A Monstrous Psychedelic Bubble Mix)" or the 2015 Chasing Yesterday track "The Right Stuff," to name just three — but only ever as one-offs or B-sides, and never in such a concentrated fashion.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he suggests of a record that flits between French pop psychedelia and Spector-esque Wall of Sound. “There’s no master plan behind it. When 'Holy Mountain' came out, one of the girls in the office said, ‘Oh, there’s been quite a bit of negative reaction to the video.’ I was like, really? This might be a laugh then. If people are getting upset about it, this might be a laugh from here on in.”
If you have even the most passing knowledge of Noel Gallagher, you will know that he is a man not entirely bothered by what you think. For him, the chance to make a record written solely in the studio for the first time in his career was an “adventure,” one in which Northern Irish producer David Holmes encouraged him to step outside of his comfort zone (case in point, the album’s largely instrumental opener, "Fort Knox," which references Kanye West’s "Power" as an influence).
“David’s whole thing was, 'You can sit there for the rest of your life with an acoustic guitar and do what you do and you’re the best at it and no one will argue. But you know, why don’t you try something different?'” Noel describes. “Do we wear the same clothes every day? No. Do we get dressed up to go out? Yeah. Do you like fancy dress parties? I fucking hate them but it’s a thing. So it’s like, why make the same fucking record every few years?”
“Do we wear the same clothes every day? No. Do we get dressed up to go out? Yeah. Do you like fancy dress parties? I fucking hate them but it’s a thing. So it’s like, why make the same fucking record every few years?”
Well, for starters there are an awful lot of people who still like scissor-less Noel Gallagher records (his second solo album, 2015’s Chasing Yesterday, went easily platinum). “Yeah, but it’s only a moment in time, it’s only a record,” he shrugs. “As a band we might look back in five years and think, What the fuck were we thinking? But it’s better than looking back on some benign success in five years time and thinking, well, that was just the same as what we do all the time.”
He offers a story as an example. “I sat at home one afternoon and I wrote 'Cigarettes and Alcohol' after listening to T. Rex. I took it into the rehearsal room and I got the same silence as I did after playing people 'Holy Mountain.' The singer, in particular, was jumping up and down on the spot like fucking Michael Palin in the Life of Brian saying, ‘You can’t do that! People are going to laugh at us! I can’t sing that.’ And I was like, calm down dear. It’s going to be fine. So I had the same spirit of adventure then, playing Cigarettes and Alcohol to six people in Manchester, some of the most cynical people in the fucking world going, That riff’s just T. Rex, mate. ‘Is it? No shit? What? That one?’ It’s like, really? I wasn’t expecting anyone not to notice. And I get the same feeling now.”
At least someone brought the singer up. As you may well have seen, Liam Gallagher also has a new record out, readers — the properly excellent As You Were. The brothers haven’t seen eyebrow to eyebrow since Noel stamped on a guitar or Liam threw a plum or something like that in a Paris dressing in 2009, ending the band formerly known as Oasis — but does he still care what he thinks of the album?
“I don’t give a fuck as long as he promotes it on his Twitter feed,” laughs Noel. “It’s like, I’m over here doing my thing, you’re over there doing my thing, and never the twain shall meet, thank you very much.”
“For me, it’s freedom to do what the fucking hell you want. I’m not owned by anybody. I’m not owned by the whims of a fan base or the bank balance of a record company. I do what I want when I want to do it. And I live and die by the consequences.”
Come on, you must have listened to his. “I’ve heard 'Wall of Glass' and the one that sounds like Adele shouting into a bucket,” he replies. “But I’m not a fan so I wouldn’t listen to it.” His voice sounds good, we offer. “But we’re not striving for good are we? We’re striving for great.”
He continues, warming to the theme: “I’m not sure I can be arsed formulating an opinion on a record that’s written by an army of songwriters. Isn’t the one from One Direction doing that? The little Irish fella with the acoustic? At least he has the decency to play a guitar. I’m not a fan. I have nothing to say about it.” Not even on a brotherly level? “No. I think at the beginning, from this side of the fence, there was a lot of good will as in, Yeah, man, I fucking hope it works. It’s about time. But that’s all gone now because it got personal. So it’s like, Fuck what he does. As long as he keeps promoting my record, there’s a good boy.”
Alright, back to the business of Noel then. For all the rivalry that may or may not ensue in the coming weeks, what’s important right now is that big brother has proved himself capable of creating a record that carries ideas previously only hinted at, over an entire 11 tracks. At a time when, as he puts it, “anyone who straps on a guitar is almost obliged to write about the news,” he’s made an album that successfully boils down what pop and roll should be: an escapist sweet spot where the sublime and scissor-playing ridiculous fuse as one.
“Look, I know what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m not about to get on stage and play an arena with a bird in a cape playing the scissors, unless it’s great. I’m not a fucking idiot. The record will stand up. I have no doubts about that. I’ve listened to it enough, I know what it is. It’s a great record. And it’s a great rock and roll record and I’ll tell you why. I go round the world and I do interviews a lot, and the term ‘rock and roll’ is banded about usually 40 times a week. And a lot of people, I find, have a pretty weird idea of what rock and roll is. It’s usually the leather jacket and the shades and the booze and the cigs and all that. For me, it’s freedom to do what the fucking hell you want. I’m not owned by anybody. I’m not owned by the whims of a fan base or the bank balance of a record company. I do what I want when I want to do it. And I live and die by the consequences.” He pauses. “It’s only a record man. I’ll make another one in a few years. That one might be worse.” As a wise man once said, (it’s good) to be free.
"Who Built the Moon?" by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds is released on November 24.